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Friday, 25 July 2014 16:16

Ending inequality is necessary to ending HIV and AIDS

The AIDS 2014 conference is an inspiring reminder of how far things have come in the last 30 years. We should all be proud to be hosting such a significant event in Melbourne this week. The images of many dedicated professionals and community members working together to address HIV and AIDS on the world stage presents a picture of an almost overwhelming task - and yet they are making a difference. What if we could too?

Compared to many places around the world, we’re ahead of the game – thanks to many of those same hard working people. Yet many people living with HIV and AIDS in our own community face daily challenges that are almost overwhelming too. Those people, and their families and friends, have withstood huge stigma and discrimination. But you don’t have to be a world class scientist to make a difference to this.

For many people, everyday experiences in the community have not advanced as far, or as quickly, as medical science. At the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) we have heard from people who have been denied jobs, who’ve been bullied at work, who’ve been denied services, denied housing and perhaps most disturbingly, denied medical treatment because of their HIV positive status. What we see is the tip of the iceberg. We understand that many people don’t complain.

The psychological, social and economic impact of discrimination on people living with HIV and AIDS can be significant. In his moving opening address at the AIDS 2014 conference on Sunday, the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG spoke about his understanding of the ‘bitter dregs of discrimination and hatred’. The impact of this can be a barrier to education and can deter people from being tested and from accessing appropriate health care. It also impacts on people’s ability to live a dignified life.

The force of this is often compounded when people have faced years of discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or lawful sexual activity. Each one of these is a protected attribute under Victoria’s equal opportunity laws.

We are lucky to have legal recognition of the right to equality in this state. Well, not so much lucky, but fortunate to have had brave people speak out about their experiences, dedicated advocates, diligent policy makers and a responsive Parliament - precious things that many of our international visitors are working towards.

HIV is a disability under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010. This law protects all people in Victoria from discrimination on the basis of disability in specific areas of public life like employment, the provision of goods and services, clubs, accommodation, and sport.

The law can be an effective tool and we’re working at VEOHRC to ensure that more people are aware of their rights and responsibilities.

More than a decade ago, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found that a football association had unlawfully discriminated against a player by refusing to register him and allow him to play because of his HIV status. The Tribunal considered the club’s health and safety arguments, but said that ‘[i]n our view the health and safety of the class in question is better protected by an understanding of the nature of the very low risk and by an understanding of and the implementation of the proper procedures to be taken in further reducing such risk, than by banning [the individual]’. People seeking to rely on exceptions about health and safety need to be aware that they can be tested and will need to justify the evidence-base for any discrimination. This will only be relevant in rare circumstances.

But people shouldn’t have to wait for things to go wrong and make a complaint. The Victorian Parliament has drawn this line in the sand for a reason. Equality is important for all of us and is something that we need to actively protect in our vibrant and diverse community. Everyone has the right to a fair go at work, to access health care and to be part of our community life. This equality needs to be lived. A Victoria Police officer I once spoke to summed it up well. He didn’t need a lot of legal-speak to get to the point of this. He summed up human rights as ‘DR’ – dignity and respect. This is a ‘doctor’ that everyone needs in their lives.

While the medical advances may be beyond many of us sitting outside the AIDS 2014 conference, each one of us can play a role combating discrimination in our community. This part of the Melbourne Declaration at AIDS 2014 is up to us. We can stand up and say no to discrimination when we see it. We can educate ourselves and we can set clear expectations in our workplaces and our community organisations. We can support people to access their rights. Ending discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS is something every one of us in Victoria can help to achieve, and indeed, it will take all of us to do so.

VEOHRC will be at the Disability Networking Zone at AIDS 2014 during the week.

Kerin Leonard, Manager of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Legal Unit and Kate Jenkins, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.

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